Local Government Ombudsman

Written evidence submitted by LGO Watch and Public Service Ombudsman Watchers

1) Summary

The LGO (Commission for Local Administration in England (CLAE))

1.01) Operate the most perverse and publicly criticised system of administrative justice in the world.

1.02) Is institutionally biased in favour of the public body under investigation.

1.03) Has a track record of rejecting complaints based on a short telephone discussion with a senior member staff from the body being complained about.

1.04) Manipulate their statistics and customer satisfaction surveys to enhance their perceived effectiveness and performance.

1.05) Under report the true level of maladministration.

1.06) Abuse their absolute discretion with impunity because their is no adequate appeals .

mechanism or complaints system with which to challenge their decisions.

1.07) Employ too high a percentage of staff (investigators and assistant managers) who have previously worked in local government. Consequently they are seen to be lacking any real independence from the bodies under investigation.

1.08) Since the mid 90s all LGOs and the majority of their Deputies have previously worked in local government. Consequently they are seen to be lacking any real independence from the bodies under investigation.

1.09) Have a significantly higher percentage of dissatisfied customers than any other Public Service Ombudsman.

1.10) Has introduced a number of dubious practices and procedures to minimise the number of complaints they have to properly investigate.

1.11) Introduced a policy of maximising good publicity and minimising bad publicity. The results of which can be seen in the way their annual reports have changed over the years.

The factually based reports of the 70s and 80s have slowly been replaced with documents better described as self promoting spin.

1.12) Accordingly the LGO is no longer fit for purpose. A situation which has been getting worse year on year since the early 90s.

2) Introduction

2.01) LGO Watch was founded in 2003 by Gary Powell and Public Service Ombudsman Watchers in 2006 by Trevor R Nunn. LGO Watch was originally set up as a campaigning website whilst Public Service Ombudsman Watchers was set up to expose Public Service Ombudsmen to public scrutiny. They were merged in 2009 but due to other commitments the original objective of LGO Watch was changed to one of helping others campaign rather than initiating and coordinating campaigns ourselves.

2.02) Whilst the LGO is quick to dismiss criticism from dissatisfied complainants (by suggesting such criticism is to be expected from complainants who were unsuccessful) it should be noted that two of the most active and outspoken critics of the LGO, Gary Powell and Trevor R Nunn, were successful on three separate occasions in obtaining a finding of maladministration against different councils.

2.03) Both Gary Powell and Trevor R Nunn gave evidence to the 2005 select committee investigation into the Role and Effectiveness of the Local Government Ombudsman.

2.04) Unfortunately, due to the then impending election the investigation was curtailed until after the election and the formation of a new government. The original chair of the committee, the driving force behind the 2005 investigation, retired at election time and the new chair unwisely closed down the investigation.

2.05) Understandably we now have little faith in a select committee having the willingness to confront let alone the motivation to do something about the unfair, unjust and perverse practices introduced by the LGO over the last 20 years.

2.06) Nevertheless, we have been motivated to submit this memorandum in the hope that this Government will now do something about the perverse system of administrative justice now being operated by the LGO once and for all.

2.07) Based on the hundreds of dissatisfied complainants who have contacted us over the years we are seriously concerned that many people who turn to the LGO do not receive the justice that they deserve.

2.08) It would appear there is a strong correlation between the LGO's ever growing reluctance to find local authorities guilty of maladministration and report it as such to the ever growing levels of local authority wrongdoing.

2.09) As a result, whistle-blowers, the press and bloggers now highlight more local authority wrongdoing than the LGO. This is a bizarre situation when you consider that the LGO are funded by the taxpayer to the tune of £20 million a year to do something that they are demonstrably failing to do. That is, to identify and report maladministration and help local authorities to improve.


3) Evidence

3.01) Much of the evidence we rely on is already in the public domain. Therefore, we are in a position to keep this part of our submission short by providing a summary with links, when necessary, to the available on-line evidence.

3.02) The LGO operate the most perverse and publicly criticised system of administrative justice in the world because it is built on Fifteen Pillars of Injustice.

ñ 1) They work in private. 

ñ 2) You can't appeal their findings of fact.

ñ 3) They don't have to be qualified for the job.

ñ 4) They can, and indeed do, delegate their job to a junior member of staff no matter how unqualified or incompetent.

ñ 5) They don't have to show all the evidence to the complainant and they usually don't.

ñ 6) They can, and often do, talk to the council without the complainant being aware any discussion took place.

ñ 7) They settle the complaint with the council. A complainant can't refuse such a settlement.

ñ 8) They don't have to follow previous decisions/precedents/case law.

ñ 9) They are free to define maladministration as they see fit, there is no statutory definition.

ñ 10) They are free to determine the level of injustice you must suffer before investigating your complaint, there is no statutory definition.

ñ 11) They are free to engage in propaganda (or as Justice Lightman calls it an evangelical agenda).

ñ 12) They probably don't meet the requirements of the Human Rights Act.

ñ 13) They often accept false statements from a council officer as the truth without any validation. (Their 5th pillar of injustice ensures nobody else is in a position to challenge this ludicrous pillar of injustice).

ñ 14) They don't ask for action to be taken against any local authority officer who has lied to them. 

ñ 15) They don't report any potentially criminal act they identify during their investigations to the Police.

Now compare the LGO fifteen pillars of injustice with the Courts/Tribunal fifteen pillars of justice below.

Courts & Tribunals and their Fifteen Pillars of justice

ñ 1) Court proceedings are normally held in public.

 

ñ 2) Either side can appeal a judgement on a finding of fact.

ñ 3) The judge is qualified.

ñ 4) A judge can't delegate their job to a junior member of staff. 

ñ 5) All evidence is shown to both sides. 

ñ 6) A judge can't talk to one side without the other side being present.

ñ 7) Any out of court settlement is agreed between the two parties. The judge plays no part. 

ñ 8) They have to follow case law or provide a valid reason for not doing so. 

ñ 9) Statutory definitions exist for all legal wrongs. 

ñ 10) A judge can't stop you taking court action even if the injustice you have suffered is slight. 

ñ 11) A judge cannot use self promoting publicity (propaganda). 

ñ 12) All court/tribunal cases have to be human rights compliant.

ñ 13) Statements are not accepted as the truth by a judge without (a) being made under oath and (b) tested by counter argument and cross examination by the other party.

ñ 14) Action can be taken against anyone who commits perjury in court.

ñ 15) A judge would report any potentially criminal act they identify during a trial to the Police. 

3.03) The LGO do not even meet their Public Value Vision statement.

Their website states The Commission's Public Value Vision is:

"to provide a high quality and efficient service, accessible to all, that remedies injustice for indiviudals (sic) and maximises the value of investigations to make public services better."

Looking at these bold statements individually, there is no independent evidence to support their assertions that they

ñ Provide a high quality service. (Their own surveys suggest over 70% of users are dissatisfied. In spite of the fact that they fiddle the results by deviously excluding a large percentage of dissatisfied complaints.)

ñ Provide an efficient service. (Their own statistics suggests otherwise.)

ñ Provide a service that is accessible to all. (See 2 below.)

ñ Provide a service that remedies injustice for individuals. (See 1 below.)

ñ Have made public services better. (Evidence suggests otherwise.)

If you exclude the self generated spin, most of the evidence available in the public domain suggests that they don't provide any of the above. Here are a couple of contradictory statements from their own website.

ñ (1) They can't provide a service which remedies injustice for individuals because they are legally restricted to recommendations only. Recommendations which can be ignored and indeed often are. "When we find that a council has done something wrong, we may recommend how it should put it right. Although we cannot make councils do what we recommend, ....."

ñ (2) Their service is not accessible to all because they can arbitrarily refuse access to their service to anyone they choose."We do not have to investigate every complaint received, even if we have the power to do so."

The LGO are free to engage in propaganda, something a real system of justice, such as a court or tribunal, can't do.

The LGO hold no independently commissioned evidence that they are effective.

3.04) The LGO is not fit for purpose.

Freedom of Information requests identify that the Commission for Local Administration in England (CLAE), AKA the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO), is not fit for purpose.

'FOI Act shines a torch on public services, says Information Commissioner.' "Freedom of Information has a key role to play in helping to deliver greater transparency and accountability. These are key priorities in public policy", says Information Commissioner Christopher Graham in a message to mark International Right to Know Day".

From a number of FOI requests submitted to the Commission for Local Administration in England (The LGO) over the last few years one can confirm that their faults are not just limited to their inability to carry out fair, just and above board investigations.

These are some of the failures that the FOI 'torch' has highlighted as far as the CLAE/LGO is concerned on the What Do They Know Freedom of Information website.

http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/body/lgo

ñ Failure to keep adequate records

ñ Failure to maintain adequate audit trails

ñ Failure to scrutinise expense claims

ñ Failure to scrutinise proposals

ñ Failure to follow their own code of conduct

ñ Failure to provide information

ñ Failure to discipline staff for mistakes or wrongdoing

ñ Failure to protect personal data

ñ Failure to meet statutory deadlines

FOI has also exposed the CLAE/LGO for

ñ Fabricating records from memory years after the event .

ñ Playing silly semantic games to delay/avoid requests for copies of documents.

ñ Making up policy on the fly.

As far as we are concerned if they can't keep their own house in order what chance have they got keeping other public authorities in order? They are not setting an example of how to run public organisation as they should be be doing.

3.05) Extracts from some of the letters/emails we receive about the LGO which support our assertion that the LGO are not fit for purpose.

ñ "I am not the slightest interested in the LGO looking at my complaint again. They have no idea how to investigate and quite honestly I don't value their opinion. In my eyes they are nothing, nobodies who twist logic and I would never recommend anyone approach them, pointless exercise. "

ñ "I think he [LGO investigator] just wanted to put me off suing the Council."

ñ "I got nothing off the ombudsman."

ñ "I can see their methods/modus operandi. Give you loads of sympathy, build you up and drop you like a piece of dirt."

ñ "I was pleased that I read your web pages before I contacted the LGO, the shock of their actions was easier to accept."

ñ "the whole system stinks of the gentleman's club.

ñ "I am hearing lots of complaints locally about the LGO."

ñ "The LGO [actual name of LGO given] is a worthless excuse for justice and a total waste of space."

ñ "I have experienced the corrupt local government ombudsman and his toady investigator."

ñ "I am still reeling in shock at the bare-faced audacity of this organisation."

ñ "The local government ombudsman has as much integrity as a racetrack shyster manipulating three egg cups and ball."

ñ "The idiom about "moving goalposts" springs to mind. We have very serious misgivings."

ñ "They LGO [actual name of LGO given] recommended utterly derisory compensation."

ñ "I am still going through exactly the same thing that caused me to complain in the first place."

ñ "The lgo agreed with us but did not believe the case was worth pursuing. The ombudsman's investigations was cursory and inaccurate and totally prejudiced against us and for the council."

ñ "No wonder the local council urged us to complain to the LGO."

ñ "The LGO report was characterised by the fact that the bulk complaints were completely ignored."

ñ "Had we known that the lgo was so ineffective, biased and incompetent we would not have bothered."

ñ "Everything I said to the ombudsman required proof but everything the council said to them was taken on face value."

3.06) The LGO's customer satisfaction levels getting worse.

Both the LGO's 1995 and 1999 customer satisfaction surveys were quantitative in nature involving 1000 complainants.

However, following the extremely poor customer satisfaction levels highlighted in both the 1995 and 1999 surveys (over 70% of all complaints dissatisfied in one way or anther with the LGO) the LGO switched to a qualitative customer satisfaction survey involving just a handful of specially selected and filtered complainants.

They switched back to a quantitative survey in 2007 but were exposed for removing nearly 20% of potentially dissatisfied complainants from this survey. However, even after the removal of a significant proportion of potentially dissatisfied customers they still received an extremely poor customer satisfaction level.

Essentially, if you strip away their obvious attempts at manipulating the outcome in their favour they have not improved their atrocious customer satisfaction levels highlighted in the 1995 and 1999 surveys. Even though they promised to heed the results of the 1995 and 1999, they had demonstrably failed to do so by 2007.

For their 2010 customer satisfaction survey they once again decided to switch back to a qualitative survey involving just a handful of specially selected and filtered complainants.

If you ignore the positive spin you will observe that the picture is very bleak for the Local Government Ombudsman as far as real customer satisfaction levels are concerned.

3.07) The fact that the Local Government Ombudsman have had more websites and blogs set up to expose their failings over the years should have set alarm bells ringing years ago. It is clearly a symptom of their appalling customer satisfaction levels and the perverse system of administrative justice which they operate.

Just a few of these are

ñ LGO Watch (http://www.ombudsmanwatch.org)

ñ Public Service Ombudsman Watchers (http://www.psow.co.uk)

ñ Ombudsman Watchers Resource Centre (http://www.ombudsmanwatchers.org.uk)

ñ Local Government Ombudsman Watcher (http://www.lgowatcher.blogspot.co.uk)

ñ Local Government Ombudsman Corruption & Cover Ups (http://www.local-government-ombudsman-lgo.blogspot.co.uk).

I addition there are a many case studies which further highlight the problems with the system of administrative justice the LGO operate.

These are just a few examples, there are many more available on-line.

ñ The Case of Mr and Mrs Wain. One in which the Parliamentary Ombudsman and the Local Government Ombudsman actually came to different conclusions on the same case. Unfortunately the Local Government refused to correct their mistakes leaving the complainant to suffer not only the original injustice but the injustice of their wrong decision.

http://www.ombudsmanwatchers.org.uk/personal_accounts/wain/mw_intro_doc.html

ñ The case of Keith Edmunds. One in which the Local Government Ombudsman repeatedly accepted the word of a council in spite of available evidence to the contrary. This is one of the main complaints we receive about the LGO.

http://www.ombudsmanwatchers.org.uk/personal_accounts/edmunds2/summary.html

ñ The case of Mr P Kerr. One in which the LGO actually committed maladministration themselves whilst reaching a decision on the case. Losing evidence or failing to take evidence into account is another common criticism of the LGO.

http://www.ombudsmanwatchers.org.uk/evidence_archives/incompetent/evidence_incompetent_york_kerr_intro.html

3.08) It is worth highlighting that the main complaint about the LGO is that they regularly accept the word of a local authority in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Something which we can prove has been going on for some 20 years.

The first example of this tactic we can identify was during the famous Balchin case. When Mr & Mrs Balchin initially complained to the LGO the LGO just rang up the CEO of the council in question and accepted the CEO's word that the council was not guilty of maladministration. As a result the LGO refused to investigate Mr & Mrs Balchin’s complaint.

It took Mr and Mrs Balchin 14 years of further legal battles before both the Parliamentary Ombudsman and the Local Government Ombudsman agreed to properly investigate their complaints.

As far as the LGO's was concerned they found the council in question guilty of maladministration and recommended they pay Mr & Mrs Balchin £100,000 compensation for the injustice they had suffered all those years earlier.

14 years of added injustice because the then LGO accepted the word of a council officer without validation and without looking at any evidence.

http://www.ombudsmanwatchers.org.uk/articles/balchins.html

One would think that the LGO would have stopped using this discredited practice; however, the reality is that LGO continue to use this discredited practice to this day.

This is by far the most common complaint we receive against the LGO.

3.09) The true cost of the Local Government Ombudsman

Using their 2009/10 figures as an example.

The Government could (except for the self financing local government training section) have closed down the LGO and given every single complainant, not just the lucky 23.6% £533.88 each (the average compensation recommended by the LGO) and still save the taxpayer nearly £12 million pounds.

£16.145 million from LGO savings +  £1.3 million saved in Council compensation payments less the £5.5 million total compensation for the 10,309 complainants. 

http://www.ombudsmanwatchers.org.uk/lgo_statistics/lgo_statistics_true_cost_0910.html

3.10) Wirral Council Scandal: Where was the Local Government Ombudsman?

Extract from a press article about the Wirral Council Scandal.

'Mr Morton’s claims of bullying, cover-ups and maladministration led an independent inquiry to conclude that the authority needs a root and branch change in its culture.

The council was in the grip of a "corrosive" and "inward-looking culture where the needs and rights of residents had become submerged under its bureaucratic machinations. '

Therefore, it is only right to question how such a badly run council could have such a low number of findings of maladministration against them by the LGO?

2010/11 34 complaints NO maladministration reported by LGO.

2009/10 166 complaints NO maladministration reported by LGO.

2008/09 43 complaints 1 finding of maladministration reported by LGO.

2007/08 87 complaints 1 finding of maladministration reported by LGO.

2006/07 95 complaints NO maladministration reported by LGO.

2005/06 100 complaints NO maladministration reported by LGO.

Between 2005 and 2011 there was 525 complaints against Wirral Council and only 2 findings of maladministration reported by LGO. Unless the objective is to hide the true level of council wrongdoing it is a statistical impossibility.

If a very badly run council like Wirral can get away with only 2 out of 525 complaints being reported as maladministration over a 6 year period just how much wrongdoing is reported by the LGO against the average council in any one year?

Answer Less than 1%.

However, if you think that is a ridiculously low figure, the LGO responsible for Wirral Council only found maladministration in only 0.1% of all complaints submitted in 2008.

That's only 1 in 1000 complaints submitted were reported by Ann Seex, LGO as maladministration. Ten times lower than the national LGO average.

No wonder councils like Wirral can get away with cover-ups and maladministration for years....until of course someone else does the LGO's job and exposes council cover ups and maladministration.

4) Recommendations

4.01) Ideally the LGO should be abolished and replaced by a truly independent and fit for purpose system of administrative justice for England.

However, if it is decided to keep the LGO the following should be considered.

4.02) An independent tribunal should be available to consider appeals to the findings of the LGO.

One is already available for hearing appeals against decisions of the Information Commissioner (ICO) and it appears inconsistent that none is available for hearing appeals against the decisions of the LGO.

Currently the only avenue open is by way of a judicial review which can only consider errors in law not in fact. It is too expensive an option for most people, and with the LGO's statutory based absolute discretion regarding whether to initiate or discontinue a complaint, complainants have found it practically impossible to succeed.

4.03) Recommendations made by the LGO following a finding in favour of the complainant should be made legally binding and enforceable.

4.04) The LGO should also be able to fine Public Authorities for wrongdoing. The Information Commissioner (ICO) can already do so and this should be extended to the LGO.

4.05) LGOs and their staff should not, and should never have been, recruited from the authorities and bodies they are expected to investigate.

4.06) Change the LGO's absolute discretion to a conditional discretion over their decision to initiate or discontinue an investigation.

4.07) Maladministration needs to be legally defined.

4.08) The level of injustice a complainant is expected to suffer from before the LGO will investigate needs to be legally defined.

4.09) Maladministration should be reported as such and graded to levels of seriousness.

This would allow for proper statistical interpretation of maladministration.

4.10) Customer satisfaction surveys should be commissioned, monitored and validated by an independent body, not by the LGO.

4.11) All LGO statistics should be independently audited and verified.

4.12) The LGO need to be made properly accountable. The current system in which the LGO produces their own statistics and their own report which are used as a yardstick to measure their effectiveness has been abused in the past and without independent validation as to the veracity of their statistics and the claims they make in their reports they will always be open to abuse.

4.13) The DCLG and Politicians need to work with citizens to improve the system of administrative justice in England rather than just tinkering with the current system to disguise it's inadequacies for the benefit of themselves and the LGO.

The fairly recent introduction of the statutory provision to empower the LGO to locally settle complaints, something they had been doing illegally since the early 90s, is a prime example of that.

Another example is when the number of people submitting complaints to the LGO fell dramatically. (Partly due to the adverse publicity on our websites) Rather than investigating the reason for this fall in numbers the Government just increased their remit thus masking the fact that complainants were beginning to desert them in droves.

5) In summary

5.01) There are hundreds of pages of evidence available in the public domain.

5.02) The only thing that has been lacking over the last 10 years is the willingness of those with the power to improve the system of administrative justice to actually do so.

5.03) Tinkering with the current system to hide its deficiencies is no longer acceptable to complainants.

Local Government Ombudsman Watch

Public Service Ombudsman Watchers

March 2012

Prepared 20th April 2012